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Published: Thursday, 12/1/2011 - Updated: 3 years ago

COMMENTARY

Freshmen make UT future bright

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

Freshmen; sometimes you can't live with them and sometimes you can't live without them.

There was a gaggle of the species on the court Wednesday night at Savage Arena.

Let's start with Adam Smith of North Carolina-Wilmington. He was Parade All-American as a high school senior, the only player from the state of Georgia to earn such an honor. A lot of big-time programs missed on him. Still, he had 21 Division I offers and somehow, some way landed at UNCW. Man, can he shoot the lights out.

Smith had 17 points at halftime and finished with 27. If Toledo hadn't come up with a way to at least slow him down -- there was no stopping him -- during the second half the Rockets would never have escaped with a 75-73 win, their fifth straight.

Enter Julius "Juice" Brown, another freshman, this one wearing a Toledo uniform. The point guard from the Chicago area scored four baskets, three of them 3-pointers, in a 2:30 stretch of the first half and then wore a defensive hat thereafter en route to a 15-point, 7-assist, 3-steal night.

Smith was 7-of-10 from the field with three treys in the first half. With Brown juicing up UT's defensive effort, and getting switch help from Dominique Buckley at times, the Wilmington ace was 4-of-10 overall and 0-for-5 from 3-point land in the second half.

"He came out pretty hot," Brown said of Smith. "I'd seen him on film and I knew he was their leading scorer, so I wasn't surprised. We missed some defensive assignments, didn't trail him a couple times, didn't fight through some screens.

"Coach was on us pretty hard at halftime. We weren't playing to our ability on defense. After that, we locked in more, especially mentally."

Part of the early problem was that another freshman, UT's Ryan Majerle, struggled at both ends early and ran up three first-half fouls.

"Ryan's one guy we trust to take on the other team's best perimeter player," Toledo coach Tod Kowalczyk said. "One of those nights, I guess. So we had nobody who could guard Smith or who wanted to guard Smith. Then we turned to Juice. He was the only guy who could do it.

"Juice has remarkable confidence for a freshman and that's contagious. He kept us in the game in the first half, he and Matt Smith, when we didn't have much else on offense. In the second half, Buckley and [Rian] Pearson got going and Juice was the difference on defense."

Brown added some big offense near the end, too. After disrupting a shot by Smith at one end, Brown took an entry pass and scored on a twisting drive to put the Rockets up 71-66. Later, he took a long outlet pass from Buckley and scored another fast-break basket for a 75-68 edge. Toledo held on from there.

UT has gone a couple seasons with no true or consistently productive point guard, one reason for back-to-back, four-win campaigns. That the Rockets are already 5-1 this time around with Brown in the fold is no coincidence.

"I'm just having fun," Juice said. "A lot of freshmen come in and feel pressure. I don't. I know the coaches have confidence in me and I know what my team is capable of. It's our first year together and we're only going to get better. The future is pretty bright."

Kowalczyk felt there were two very, very good freshmen, game-changing type players, on display Wednesday.

"It's too early to call either of them special, but they certainly are special freshmen, guys who are having immediate impacts," UT's coach said.

He has a lot of respect for Smith. And he wouldn't trade Brown.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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